Liability lessons learned from the tragic collapse of Florida’s Champlain Towers

Over the years I have driven through many cities and towns in Florida, vacationing in condos just like the Champlain Towers in Surfside. Most of the multi-story structures in Florida are made of concrete; block buildings held together with fortress-like strength with mortar, rebar, poured concrete lintels, pillars, and fasteners of every type.

It does not take an architectural or engineering degree to realize that when built and maintained correctly this construction type is some of the strongest known to man, and hence why they can withstand even the strongest hurricanes to pass through Florida over the years.

When the first images of this 40-year-old 13-story building collapse came across the TV, my first instinct was that it had to be a bomb. I saw flashbacks from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. The security footage from across the street disclosed otherwise, showing instead a building going from standstill to a pancake collapse in the middle of the night without any signs of an explosion, with its 55 units crashing down on top of one another killing just about everybody in them.

 

As I watched the talking heads and commentators try to make sense of it, many said the collapse was something you would expect to see in a Third World country, where inspections are backlogged or non-existent and bribery thrives — not in Miami, Florida.

Structural engineers who observed a video of the collapse speculated that the failure of a single column of the structure would have been sufficient to bring the building down. The exact cause of the collapse is not yet known and probably will not be determined for months if not years. And even then it will be disputed to avoid culpability.

 

While experts continue to discuss the cause, all I can see is the associated liability. Being a risk management and safety professional, I first visualized that the underwriter and loss control consultant/inspectors’ files were reviewed the following Monday morning to determine what was missed and how they could have avoided the risk of exposure to the insurance carrier.

I suspect that new underwriting guidelines have already been written, and scores of loss control consultants will soon be better trained to detect the structural integrity of multi-story buildings.

The collapse of the Champlain Towers has already set off years and years of litigation, as victims and their families look to find fault among the building’s management as well as engineers, architects, and others, to find compensation for their losses. Banks with outstanding mortgages will also join in the lawsuit to recoup their losses, and insurance carriers will be filing subrogating claims to recoup their losses as well.

According to reports, the condo association had $30 million in property insurance and $18 million for liability which on the surface sounded sufficient prior to the collapse. But with such destruction and death, it will obviously be inadequate to compensate everyone fully.

Less than 24 hours after the collapse, the first of at least five lawsuits was filed against Champlain Towers South Condominium Association Inc., run by a volunteer board comprised of owners, for failing to ensure the building’s safety. Until another cause can be identified, the presumption is failed maintenance on the building.

Whether it be architects, engineers, or contractors that had any involvement with the building, attorneys will leave no stone unturned to include anybody that touched or made decisions about that building over the past 40 years.

I expect insurance claims to linger for over a decade, because liability in complex disasters such as this often will get parceled out among defendants, with a certain percentage being apportioned to each. A multitude of defendants will be named in all the lawsuits as teams of attorneys will feast for years, racking up tens of thousands of hours in attorney fees, on both sides of each case.

Inescapable liability will affect many as I suspect that everybody from the landscaper, HVAC contractor to even the painters will get named in the ensuing lawsuits to determine culpability, forcing each to prove that their actions did not degrade the structural integrity of the building. Even if you owned a pet-sitting company and allowed the pet to urinate on the side of a building, it’s likely you too will be brought into these lawsuits as that’s how liability and attorneys work in today’s litigation society.

There are rumors that a neighboring project may have caused substantial earth movement, structural wall cracking to the Champlain complex, and they too will be dragged into the ensuing legal battle. The fact is, many will settle their lawsuits even though they did not have any culpability, just to avoid the costly legal fees to prove their innocents.

While other defendants will spend thousands if not millions of dollars to deflect their culpability by introducing countless expert witnesses and supporting studies to counter other opinions.

According to an article in www.propertycasualty360.com titled “Unraveling the Mystery of the Miami Building Collapse,” the chain of litigation works like a tree. The renter/survivor will sue the landlord or the unit owner. The unit owner will sue the association. The association will sue its property management firm. Everyone will sue the original architects, contractor, and any sub-contractor that ever even walked the halls. They’ll sue neighboring contractors, the municipality, and its vendors for faulty inspection or failure to give notice, or failure to take action of any particular type. They’ll sue consulting engineers who may have been called in over the past 40 years.

Meanwhile, as they argue their points, my heart bleeds for the families of the victims whose lives have been forever changed. No amount of award will ever bring back even one family member, and their associated pain will be live out for the rest of their lives.

With such tragedy and death, inevitably come lessons learned and changes to prevent others in the future from suffering the same fate. Just about every disaster of this magnitude produces new safety regulations and guidelines to prevent such occurrences. That is what fuels us safety professionals’ careers, and provides opportunities to make a difference.

There are several lessons from this disaster and the number one takeaway that stands out to me is that you can never have too much insurance. For without the proper insurance coverage, getting named in such a lawsuit can easily bankrupt your business. As a business owner, your insurance broker is one of your most trusted advisors. I would encourage you to select a broker that will not cut corners (coverages and limits) to lower your premiums to win your business.

Instead, read your insurance policy and spend the time vetting your producer, who should openly review all your coverages and the limits that meet your risk tolerance level. If you buy your commercial insurance based on price, you are making a mistake that you may one day regret.

The last takeaway that jumps at me from a personal viewpoint is to stay away from volunteering to any homeowner or building association board positions due to the associated liability. If you do decide to sit on such a board, purchase as much insurance as your members will allow, because you may need every nickel to help defend your decisions.

This article was written by Keven Moore.

 

Keven has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He is also an expert witness. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both Lexington and Northern Kentucky.